Charles-Auguste de Bériot was born on 20 February 1802 in a noble family in Leuven. His first violin lessons were imparted by Jean-François Tiby, who became the boy’s guardian after the untimely death of de Bériot’s parents. At the age of nine already de Bériot performed for an audience, playing a concerto by Giovanni Battista Viotti. At the advice of violinist André Robberechts and supported by Viotti, he moved on at age nineteen to the Conservatoire of Paris, where he took violin lessons with Pierre Baillot. However, Baillot did not like de Bériot’s technically eccentric style, and after a short time de Bériot said farewell to the Conservatoire. During the following years he performed mainly in Paris, London and the Netherlands. In 1824 he was appointed court violinist of king Charles X of France, with the title of ‘Violon de la chambre de S.M. le Roi de France’. However, it remains a moot question whether he ever really obtained that title, several sources contradicting each other. A couple of years later, in 1827, he did earn the title of chamber virtuoso of king Willam I of the Netherlands, an office he was to exercise until 1830.
In 1827 Charles de Bériot met for the first time Maria de la Felicidad Garcia, a famous mezzo-soprano, better known under the name of her husband at that time, Malibran. In 1830 they settled down in Paris, teaming up for concert tours through France, Belgium, England and Italy. In 1836 ‘La Malibran’ divorced her husband and married de Bériot, but the same year she died as a result of a fall from her horse. De Bériot withdrew from concert life with a view to looking after their son Charles-Wilfrid. This period of withdrawal lasted for a whole year after the death of his wife, followed by his comeback at the city hall of Brussels and a concert tour through Austria and Italy, together with the singer Pauline Garcia, the junior sister of his deceased spouse.
After his second marriage in 1840 with Maria Huber, the daughter of an Austrian magistrate, de Bériot settled down in Sint-Joost-ten-Node and limited his concert tours. His house became the centre of the ensemble ‘Cercle des arts’, founded by him, which regularly executed chamber music concerts.
In 1842 he was offered the succession of Baillot at the Paris Conservatoire. Whether de Bériot accepted this position or declined, cannot be determined because of contradictory evidence, but we do know for sure that in the same year 1842 he was offered a position at the Brussels Conservatoire as well. De Bériot accepted the latter appointment, founded a flourishing violin school, and continued to teach there until 1852. Earlier he had already been loosely associated with that institution as a private teacher, thus discovering in 1828 Henri Vieuxtemps, and resolving to tutor the boy at age eight for free.
In 1852 de Bériot had to resign at the Brussels Conservatory because of a serious eye illness. Six years later he was completely blind. In this period de Bériot wrote his Méthode de violon, and despite his blindness he remained active as a violinist. In 1859 he received an invitation from the Russian violinist Prince Nikolaj B.Yusupov, resulting in a stay of several months in St Petersburg. However, when de Bériot’s left arm was stricken with paralysis in 1866, his career as a violinist was over.
Charles-Auguste de Bériot is considered as one of the greatest violinists from his era and as one of the founding fathers of the Belgian school of violin playing, with Eugène Isaÿe as one of its later glories. De Bériot combined the virtuoso style of Paganini with typical characteristics of the French violin school such as elegance, grace, precision and pure intonation. These characteristics are already present in de Bériot’s first violin concerto, with its numerous brilliant effects.
As for his compositions indeed he wrote almost exclusively for his favourite instrument, including ten violin concertos and numerous series of variations on famous opera motifs for violin and piano. De Bériot often composed in cooperation with piano virtuosos such as his son Charles-Wilfrid de Bériot, Sigismund Thalberg, Georges Osborne and Benoit-Constant Fauconier. As a pedagogue he composed several collections of Etudes and the pedagogical works Méthode de violon (1858) and École transcendante du violon (1867).
© Studiecentrum voor Vlaamse Muziek vzw - Evy De Smedt (translation: Joris Duytschaever)